Cardinals' passing attack hard to contain

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, a devout Christian, executed a play that featured plenty of chutzpah Sunday.

At one point early in the fourth quarter of an eventual 27-23 loss to Carolina at Bank of America Stadium, Warner sent five receivers out, leaving only minimal blocking. So minimal that Carolina star defensive end Julius Peppers was left unblocked.

Completely unblocked.

All 6-foot-7, 283 pounds of Peppers had no one between him and the 37-year-old Warner. This is the kind of moment that sends most veteran quarterbacks to the bench, if not to the safer confines of retirement. But if Warner, who the Cardinals are expected to approach this offseason about a new contract, is still toying with the idea of retirement, he fooled everybody in the place. On that play, Warner used his quick release to hit a 12-yard completion.

Moreover, armed with a healthy Anquan Boldin, who returned from a fractured sinus to catch two touchdowns, and Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald, Warner (who was 35-of-49 for 381 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception) and the Cardinals broke out a pass-happy attack reminiscent of his best days in St. Louis.

So good that they even got the fearsome Carolina defense to back down from its heavy blitz scheme during the second half.

"Every time you were in his face, the guy made a play," said Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, who had the game's only interception. "We were getting to him, but we were getting burned. We had pressure and when you get burned and he proves that he's going to stay in there and take a shot, you kind of have to back off until you have an answer for him."

The question now is whether or not this is how Arizona will play the rest of the season, or at least against tough opponents. The kind of opponents they will likely have to face come playoff time if they maintain control of the NFC West.

The Cardinals now have made three trips to the East Coast, losing to the Panthers, Jets and Redskins. Assuming 6-2 Carolina (NFC South) and the 6-1 Giants keep rolling, it appears that the road to the NFC title will run through the Eastern seaboard.

"We still have a good running game, so don't get carried away," said Boldin, who missed the previous three games but played as if he hadn't missed even five reps in practice. "But we can and we should open it up the way Kurt played today. We had control of this game and if we just eliminate a couple of mistakes, we're there."

Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt certainly gave no indication that he regretted the decision to highlight receivers Boldin (nine catches, 91 yards), Fitzgerald (seven, 115) and Steve Breaston (nine, 63).

"We had 400 yards of offense," said Whisenhunt, who even went for a fake field goal that failed late in the first half. "We scored 23 points against the No. 3 (scoring) defense in the league. I'll take that any week. Whether we've got to throw it or whether we can run it. Whatever we have got to do, if we're operating the way we operated today, we're going to win football games and that's what this is all about."

In the process, the Cardinals all but ignored the running game, rushing 14 times for 50 yards. Take away Boldin's 30-yard carry on a reverse, and running backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower combined for only 20 yards on 13 attempts.

Then again, with Warner in command it was easy to understand why the Cardinals eschewed the run in an effort to chew up the Carolina secondary.

"We had great coverage so much of the time and (Warner would) just drop one in there perfectly," Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas said. "If they have to play that way, they're going to scare some people."

Even if it means putting Warner in some scary positions occasionally, such as the constant four- and five-receiver formations that left him vulnerable to the blitz. Or such as the one-on-one against Peppers where Warner better executed what effectively is a dangerous game of hot potato. If the defense had done just enough to slow up the receiver on that play, Warner pays the price.

"We wanted to be aggressive," Warner said. "I don't think you ever go into a game expecting to throw that much. I think you'd like to run, but we just weren't getting a whole lot done on the ground … so we just kind of gravitated to it because we were having so much success with it."

Perhaps, but don't be surprised to see a lot more of that as the season progresses.

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